Sunday, 1 January 2012

On the Belgian Quad Front: St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Rochefort 10

For those who are unaware, Westvleteren 12 as brewed by the Trappist Monks at the Abbay of St. Sixtus, is often considered/ranked as the 'best beer in the world.'  Yet, this quadrupel (like the dubbel, Westvleteren 8, and their Blonde) are extremely rare and typically only sold either at the Abbay itself, or on the grey market.

However, after World War II, St. Sixtus contracted the commercial brewing of 'Westy 12' (and the 8 and blonde) to St. Bernardus in nearby Watou.  Though the official commercial brewing agreement has ended, St. Bernardus has continued brewing beer with what is presumed to be the identical recipe of Westvleteren 12 and which uses the original Westvleteren yeast (though Westvleteren has allegedly now moved to Westmalle's yeast) under the name St. Bernardus Abt 12.  Apparently, these beers are remarkably similar and, though I have yet to get my hands on a Westy, the SAQ has provided me with the opportunity to taste both the St. Bernardus Abt 12 and, another highly praised Trappist Quadrupel, Rochefort 10.

The St Bernardus Abt 12 (10.5% ABV) pours a thick white frothy head, but one that recedes fairly quickly.  However, a slight semblance of head remains atop throughout the beer's consumption and a quickly-receding but smooth-looking lace trails the glass edges.  The beer itself is cloudy brown, perhaps appearing darker than it is due to the free-floating yeasts inside the bottle and glass.

The aroma is dominated by malt (alongside the yeast) and resulting scents of fig and fruit, especially raisins and grapes.  Slight brown-sugar and caramel traces follow, though these are much less predominant than the fruitiness that stands out.  Yet, the aroma is complex and, especially with the aging capacities of such a beer, I presume different with each tasting (sniffing?).

Dark fruitiness and yeasty spiciness dominate the fore-flavours, though it closes with a faint semblance of bitter dark chocolate that isn't excessively drying due to the remaining thick malty fruitiness.  Much like the aromas, the complexity of the flavour and its 'age-ability' indicate the opportunity for different realizations with every sip and serving.

On the tongue, it is medium-bodied with only slight carbonation.  It is slightly creamy and warming.  Though the alcohol can be felt and tasted perhaps more than in a Rochefort 10 or La Trappe Quadrupel, it is still very drinkable and certainly doesn't overwhelm you with its alcohol the way a lesser strong beer might.

A very, very good and complex beer.  Grade: A

Why not an A+?  Because the Trappistes Rochefort 10 gets that!  On different days, at different times, I found the Rochefort 10 to be the better beer, though I intend to both age some (of each) and try a blind tasting at some point to confirm my initial suspicion.

The Rochefort 10 (11.3% ABV) pours a darker head than the Bernardus which displays a beige colour alongside better retention (though with negligible lacing).  Colour-wise, this beer is remarkable: a gorgeous deep red that seems partially browned by the floating yeasts, but the two colours seem to both remain present and complement each other rather than blending in a way I have never before seen.

The yeasty and malty aromas of quadrupels generally are present, with fruits, figs, and plums being primary, though the secondary notes of chocolate and coffee are more discernible than in the Bernardus and this is one slightly more desirable quality for me (in differentiating two fantastic beers!)

The taste again benefits from the secondary strengths, in my opinion.  While still fruity, this is accompanied by bready malt and a sweet chocolate finish alongside a sufficiently drying hoppy floral flavour.  The sweetness is probably greater, but so too is the balance.  The complexity here again means that I might reevaluate this ranking given a different day.

This beer is thicker, creamier, chewier, and more full-bodied than the Bernardus, yet even though it is stronger, it better disguises its warmth and alcohol (again, not that the Bernardus is bad at this, just less great!).  Grade: A+  That said, this grade is for the style.  A fantastic beer, but I slightly prefer the Rochefort 8 since, as said before, there is something about the dubbel style that I generally, slightly, prefer to the quad.

I promise to give another assessment of these complex, living beers as they age.  I will probably try them again both blind and over the next year or two and will link back here to further the discussion.

Which quads have you had?  Which do you prefer and why?  Let me know!


  1. Having now had several Bernardus' I wonder if the perceived light carbonation in that first was due to its freshness as this beer is surely more highly carbonated than I give it credit for in that initial review. It surely does evolve and ferment further with increased carbonation as a byproduct of this secondary fermentation.

  2. And, moreover, there is a creamy mouthfeel that often masks the excessive carbonation of the style... but the head on this first bottle seemed to diminish faster than the others I have had as well and I do wonder if this bottle was under-primed/under-yeasted or very, very fresh.